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What Adam West Taught Us About Unexpected Heroes

Timing is everything. 

Today’s glut of lavishly-produced superhero movies and tv would have delighted the ten-year-old comic book nerd I used to be. I say ten to avoid embarrassment, but even as a high school senior I spent hours earnestly debating the casting of Michael Keaton as Tim Burton’s Batman. Then, devoted to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, my (all male) friends and I would have been driven to tears had we somehow been afforded a glimpse of Heath Ledger as the Joker, next to whom Jack Nicholson would have been exposed as the cornball poseur he was. 

Alas, by the time I did see the Dark Knight, I was old, and the magic had long worn off. I dutifully sat through all of Christopher Nolan’s grim trilogy, but that was it for me–until I had a superhero-obsessed son of my own, that is. I’ve seen all the Marvel movies with him, and am sorry to say that each new one is a little harder to tolerate than the last. As for the quickly proliferating streaming series, he’s on his own. 

Sometimes when I’m sitting there in my CGI-induced stupor I think about the first comic book adaptation I ever saw, a program I loved from my earliest days as a tv watcher. Although I later outgrew it for the grittier fare that spawned in the post Maus era, it is these supposedly more sophisticated versions that now seem puerile and a little embarrassing to me. 

“Comics aren’t just for kids anymore,” the countless culture pieces touting “graphic novels” always begin. But costumed superheroes are for children, and they work best when they remind us of the truths we first grasped in childhood.

In 1965, ABC tasked playwright and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. with turning the Batman comic book into a TV series. Although the network had something dramatic in mind, for Semple, the material clearly required a comedic touch: “I mean, golly gee, how else can one view a character who enters a nightclub in full Bat garb and mask, accompanied by a gorgeous chick, and when greeted by the maître d’ with an obsequious ‘Good evening, Batman! A table for two?’ gravely replies, ‘Yes, thank you. But please, not too near the music. I wouldn’t want to appear conspicuous.’”

The resulting series (available to stream on Tubi) was certainly campy, but it was played so straight that a child encountering it (as I did, when it was syndicated in the ‘70s and ’80s) could find it genuinely thrilling. Much of this is thanks to Adam West’s hypnotically mannered performance, which takes Batman’s virtue and single-minded focus on doing good to absurd extremes, without ever making fun of it. While the show is indeed quite funny, there’s also something noble about this Batman’s steadfast refusal to relax his standards, even as his enemies have a ball giving in to their worst impulses. 

Of course, Batman and his costumed cohort are big business now. Our culture–besotted as it is by the multibillion-dollar comic book industrial complex–could learn a lesson from the small-screen, low-budget Caped Crusader: sometimes being a hero means looking like a square. 

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